Marriage from the Other Side: Kindness

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.” (Ephesians 4:32)

I’ve been writing a series of posts reflecting on 13 years of marriage to Elizabeth, from about a year after her death, trying to name some things I learned in it from the far side. I discussed the best parts of our marriage, some regrets, and talked specifically about sex. Now I want to focus on another aspect of marriage, one that isn’t always articulated in books and talks but that is essential to a flourishing union: kindness.

Elizabeth used to talk about “treating people like fine china.” It was how she viewed all of her relationships. Human beings weren’t everyday dishes or coffee mugs, to be carelessly tossed in the sink or slammed on the table. They were meant to be handled gently and valued as fit for the greatest of occasions.

I never much liked the analogy, probably because being porcelain isn’t exactly affirming my masculine self-image. But I understood what she meant, and it is one of the best things I learned from her. It was something we both grew to pursue in marriage: to show care and caution in how we handled each other.

Kindness is an underrated and often unlauded virtue in Christian circles. I’m not sure why that is; perhaps it feels trite? Or too easy? Certainly, “just be nice to people” is a cliché that can oversimplify the complexities of human relationships. But it is also a biblical calling, a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit, and an essential element of a marriage where both parties feel safe and have room to flourish.

This neglect of kindness is especially damaging when it comes to marriage. Nowhere is it more needed, and nowhere is its absence so obvious. When Scripture pictures the marriage-love of Christ, it is with the tenderest of imagery. He bathes his bride and clothes her in splendor, “nourishes and cherishes” her. (Ephesians 5:25-32) While much more could be said about a healthy relationship, there is no better place to start than with kindness.

Kindness Means Treating People As Valuable

What is kindness? First, it involves recognizing the value of the other. I mentioned the image of “fine china,” but I prefer that of a precious stone. Have you ever had the chance to handle a diamond or gemstone? Objectively, the thing does not need to be treated delicately. You will probably break before it does. Yet it is handled with the lightest touch and the greatest care because we recognize how valuable it is. We throw pebbles at ponds but put emeralds on velvet because of their worth, and human beings are made with far more value than some shiny rock.

An essential habit of marriage is to consistently remind yourself of what your spouse is worth. Not in comparison to other potential spouses—down that path is great danger—but in themselves as an image-bearer of God and an adopted member of the divine family. To remember that the person sleeping and eating and brushing their teeth next to you is an eternal creature of near-infinite value, that they have a caring Creator who has entrusted them to you for this fleeting earthly season, and that you are therefore to treat them in a way that reflects this inestimable worth. Just shifting this way of viewing them begins to radically alter how we treat them.

Kindness Means Recognizing People Are Vulnerable

We are told of our Savior that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42:3) While God is harsh with the unrepentant and privileged in Israel, He is tender and gentle with those who are struggling or hurting. The prophetic tone in Scripture is not only one of rebuke. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1-2a)

I don’t like calling people “fragile” because it demeans their God-given agency and resiliency, but all human beings are vulnerable in certain ways. We all have insecurities, wounds, and places we are open to attack. Too often in destructive marriages, these vulnerabilities become targets. Maybe simply out of a desire to hurt; I am consistently shocked at the cruelty some husbands and wives can inflict on each other out of their own pain. Or those vulnerabilities are targeted out of a desire to force someone to change. We try to verbally or emotionally batter someone into being a better spouse.

Kindness involves a commitment to instead treating your spouse’s weak spots with tenderness. To never attack them, and more than that, to do everything you can to protect them. To bind up their wounds with the medicines of love and stand against those who would do harm. To tread lightly, especially when nerves are exposed and feelings are close to the surface.

Kindness Means Respect and Restraint

In practice, kindness involves a negative and a positive. Negatively, it is never being careless or cruel to another human heart.

Some hurt is intentional, and it is obviously sinful. When we actively seek to damage or destroy, that is a failure to be kind. Such cruelty is vile. It is, as Ephesians 5 pictures it, a self-mutilation of the one-flesh union of marriage. Any spouse who recognizes that they have done this should engage in the deepest sort of repentance; and if we are honest, there are moments when all of us have done such things.

Yet while repentance is needed for the violence or intentional harm, it is perhaps even more needed for the unintentional hurts caused by our lack of care. If people are like fine china, we are often the bulls in the shop who thrash about, heedless of the damage we are causing.

My children are having to learn to take responsibility for careless actions. “It was an accident” is their excuse for a heedless swing that left something or someone broken, and like all children, they must come to understand that accidents are still moral failures when they are a result of our lack of mindfulness. They must learn to know their own strength.

Yet I have seen many adults adopt the same attitude toward their actions and words. “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is the surly, self-justifying response of many. It is no excuse. We have enormous power to harm our spouses because of the closeness of our relationship; this means we must be especially mindful of how we can hurt them and do everything in our power to avoid it. Failing to do this is not a defense but a ground for conviction.

To put it another way, respect and restraint are essential elements of a kind relationship. We hold ourselves back. We don’t speak without first asking if it is honoring to Jesus and uplifting to the other person. We don’t weaponize weaknesses or failures, instead choosing to surrender them in love.

Kindness Means Encouragement and Service

Avoiding the negative is needful, but it is not sufficient. Kindness is more than “do no harm.” It also requires us to actively seek to do good. More specifically, kindness is Scripture’s category for undeserved, undemanded acts of blessing. It is modeled by God’s generosity to the “ungrateful and evil.” (Luke 6:35)

In marriage literature, spouses (especially husbands) are often encouraged to “be romantic”: buy your wife flowers, read her poetry, write an encouraging note. This is all fine advice, although the specifics need to be adapted to the person in question. However, categorizing this as romance has always seemed to cheapen it, making it sound like some gratuitous call that properly applies only to Casanovas. Nonsense. A spouse should be making such gestures simply because they are kind and reflect the generous kindness of God.

I found it more helpful in the daily rhythms of marriage to simply ask, “What is a small, concrete way I can bless my wife today?” This integrates the romantic with the mundane—maybe it’s a date night, or maybe it’s a trip away with friends. Maybe it’s an encouraging word about her beauty, or maybe it’s just fixing that dishwasher that has been having issues. The point is to be committed to un-asked-for, sometimes even unnoticed actions that build up.

Kindness Begins Healing

In perhaps the most striking biblical aside about kindness, we are told that God’s kindness is meant to bring us to repentance. (Romans 2:4) In context, it is a warning about presuming on that generosity, but it also reminds us of a powerful truth: being kind is itself a step toward healing. This reality is why I wanted to single out this aspect of our marriage: because, for those who are in hard places, I think it offers a place to start.

If you are struggling in your marriage, finding healing can seem like an insurmountable task. It requires growth in communication skills, in emotional health, in processing past wounds and pursuing spiritual growth and exploring buried regions of your own heart. I’m not suggesting that work isn’t needed, but when a couple committed to growth gets a glimpse of the mountain ahead, they can feel overwhelmed.

So if that is you, a suggestion. Talk with your spouse and together seek to make a commitment to be more kind to each other. To be gentle, to not exploit vulnerabilities, to speak more carefully, and do the work of blessing. This commitment alone won’t fix every issue, but it provides a context within which repentance can take place. More than that, it is a sweet rain for thirsty soil that can nourish and encourage deeper growth.